How Saw was ahead of the Marvel cinematic universe

Elaborate continuity where questions take several films to pay off: yes, Marvel's doing that now, but Saw did it first...

From an objective standpoint, the Saw films are not quality cinema. Even including the somewhat respected original, they are full of bad acting, cringeworthy lines, headache-inducing editing, and a bloodthirstiness that is almost unparalleled in cinematic history. They are cheap, nasty, grimy, and completely unpleasant films.

But I love them dearly. And I’m far from the only one. The Saw films enjoyed a passionate and obsessive cult following over the course of the 2000s, and for a while were a gruesome Halloween tradition with huge box office takings to boot. It would be incredibly easy to view the series as little more than a careless, yearly moneymaking machine catering to the basest human fascination with violence and evisceration. It would not be an entirely unfair assessment, but it would also be quite reductive.

The current state of blockbuster filmmaking is an extremely interesting one. The biggest franchise on the planet right now is the intricately interlinked Marvel cinematic universe, and pretty much every other major studio is scrambling to follow their example (Sony and Spider-Man, Warner Brothers and DC, Fox and X-Men, Universal and, er, Universal Monsters). Marvel has proved that there is a large audience for films that rely heavily on internal continuity and interconnections.

Part of the joy of the Marvel films is watching characters and plot points carefully established in one film get continued and paid off in a different one, sometimes even several films down the track. We now know that 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War will pay off the plot thread that was first established by the Tesserect in Captain America: The First Avenger; by the time we reach the final conclusion in 2019, it will have been a story eight years in the making. While there are many factors that have ensured the success of Marvel, not least among them is the respect the studio has in the audience to remember minor plot points for years before they become truly important.

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There is a strong argument that this precedent has been established by recent television, with shows like The SopranosGame of Thrones, and Breaking Bad demonstrating that huge audiences are willing to play the long game and wait for satisfying resolutions. Suddenly, big movie franchises seem less like a succession of individually crafted films and more like episodes of a gigantic, expensive television series. As a voracious television watcher, I love films like this. I go to every new Marvel film and get very excited to see how the established plots will pay off in the next instalment. I pay obsessively close attention to plot details and debate them fiercely with other fans. But this trend in blockbuster cinema did not start with a TV series or a superhero franchise. It started with the Saw films.

In 2007, fans waited with baited breath for Saw IVSaw III had ended with several huge questions left unanswered, so say nothing of the lingering threads from the first two films. What had happened to Doctor Gordon? Was Eric Matthews alive? What was in the letter that made Amanda lose her mind? What was the deal with that suspicious Detective Hoffman? Would Jeff find his daughter? Did Jigsaw have another accomplice?

Even by today’s standards, that is a huge amount of questions to leave unanswered at the end of a film. But it had me thrilled and excited. A year of anticipation between films had me salivating to know what it was all building to, and I spent hours on the Saw message boards debating theories with other tragic obsessives. Were we excited about seeing what vicious and gruesome contraptions the filmmakers would come up with? Not at all; I don’t think anticipation for gore was mentioned once. It was the plot that had us compelled.

And when Saw IV brazenly refused to answer most of the big questions, but in fact produced a whole lot more, did we give up in frustration? God no. It just made Saw V a much more exciting prospect.

The writers of the Saw films had no doubt that we would wait for our answers. In Saw III Amanda seems to suddenly veer from merely unsettling to complete psychopath after reading a letter. Do we find out the contents? Yes, but not until Saw VI. When Doctor Gordon crawled footless out of the bathroom in the original Saw, fans endlessly debated what his ultimate fate was, and that debate did not end until the answer was finally revealed; in Saw VII. It took six sequels and plenty of teasing hints to get an answer, and for those who had followed the series from the start, this pay off was hugely satisfying (even if the rest of that film was terrible).

I don’t know if there has ever been another film franchise that loved its fans as much as Saw. The later films were full of seemingly pointless flashbacks showing how traps from the first two films were set up, how newly introduced characters were involved, and so on, and it was awesome. An increasingly convoluted picture was illustrated more and more with each new film, and we loved it. It told us that all the obsessive thought we had put into the series was matched only by the willingness of the writers to delve deeper and deeper into the twisted and increasingly unfeasible universe.

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Was it overcomplicated and sometimes a little bit laughable? Absolutely, but it was insanely fun to follow. There is nothing quite like the thrill of realising that your most audacious theories about a series are actually correct, that your unhealthily deep considerations about where a certain plot point might be going are right on the money. It makes you feel like the love you put into a series is returned in kind, and that only deepens your care.

I’m not denying that the films are sickeningly violent, or that Saw VII was insulting garbage. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that only the first two films in the series are genuinely good movies; the rest veer wildly between hard to watch and simply entertaining. But the people who made these films respected their fan base from day one and even when the increasingly twisting plotting threatened to drive away more casual viewers, they kept to their guns. There is something audacious about a gorehound horror franchise embracing this soap opera plotting; something unique and exciting.

Fast forward to the present day and almost every film franchise is adopting the same way of thinking. It’s fantastic to feel rewarded by pay offs in each new Marvel film, and time will tell whether DC, Sony and the rest manage to pull it off quite as well. I am not trying to suggest that the Saw films had any influence at all on the way the Marvel films tie into each other; quality television can probably by thanked for that. But, ten years after its first instalment, it seems only fitting to remember that the Saw series did it first.

Were they released in this day and age, would they be afforded more respect for what they do, or would they be written off as just another franchise trying to ape the Marvel model? It’s kind of a moot point. The Sawseries will probably always be somewhat disrespected for what it is, and that’s okay. It does not mean, however, that the fans will love it any less. I certainly won’t.